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6 - Comprehending bodily experience

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 June 2012

Antonia C. Lyons
Massey University, Auckland
Kerry Chamberlain
Massey University, Auckland
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The symptom itself is rarely questioned. But is the symptom so unproblematic? Why does one person experience headaches and sore throats whereas another has migraines and tonsillitis? Why does retirement exacerbate symptoms but a busy job make them disappear? … An understanding of how symptoms arise and how only some are given the status of a problem can create a broader psychological perspective in which to understand patients' health and illness.

(Ogden, 2003a, p. 409)

An essential characteristic of physical sensations [are that] they are as often socially influenced interpretations as they are the direct output of a biological system. In matters of health and illness, it is difficult to imagine a more fundamental process than that by which we perceive, interpret, and act on the information from our own bodies.

(Cioffi, 1991, p. 25)

Learning objectives

The aim of this chapter is to review the literature on how people interpret and respond to bodily sensations which have implications for physical health. By the end of this chapter you should be able to:

  • provide an overview of psychological research on recognising symptoms;

  • offer a critique of the biomedical model of symptom recognition;

  • distinguish between a ‘bodily sign’ and a ‘physical symptom’;

  • argue why cognitive factors involved in perceiving changes in bodily states need to be understood within a social and cultural framework;

  • describe and critique the main theories of pain;

  • discuss the implications of constructing factors that influence bodily experience as located within the individual;

  • compare and contrast differing accounts of the body and bodily experience.

Health Psychology
A Critical Introduction
, pp. 181 - 206
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2006

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Kirmayer, L. J., & Young, A. (1998). Culture and somatization: clinical, epidemiological and ethnographic perspectives. Psychosomatic Medicine, 60, 420–30. This paper provides a solid review of the research on somatisation across cultures. In doing so, it highlights how somatic symptoms have many potential meanings, and how these meanings serve diverse psychological and social functions.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Kolk, A. M. M., Hanewald, G. J. F. P., Schagen, S. & Gijsbers van Wijk, C. M. (2003). A symptom perception approach to common physical symptoms. Social Science and Medicine, 57, 2343–54. In this paper Kolk and colleagues provide an introduction to their symptom perception model, which is based on the theoretical work of Pennebaker, Kirmayer and Cioffi. It provides an accessible review of findings on the cognitive-perceptual processes involved in interpreting symptoms.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Kugelmann, R. (1997). The psychology and management of pain. Theory and Psychology, 7, 43–65. In this paper Kugelmann outlines how pain has been conceptualised since the 1950s, and how it has been dealt with in the biomedical model. He shows how the gate-control theory of pain, by redefining pain as a process, opened up new possibilities for patients with pain, and also new possibilities for health professionals. The outcome, as Kugelmann argues critically and coherently, is that professionals now have authority over much greater realms of people's lives, and there is more technical management of people's suffering.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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